Hosea 2: Is the Marriage Salvageable?
This piece first appeared in Rabbi Natasha's commentary on the 929 Tanakh Project here.
When the 10 Sayings are carved into two tablets of stone, the second statement ‘you shall have no other gods’ on the first tablet is parallel with the seventh commandment against adultery, on the second. This is the primary analogy of the Book of Hosea: Israel is cast as God’s unfaithful wife. God wishes to take her back, but only if she will renew their relationship and be faithful.
This brings up a particular issue in Torah law. According to the laws of adultery, a woman who has intercourse with another man is now forbidden to her husband. This throws the analogy into some confusion, because Hosea does take Gomer back, and the Divine also plans to renew His relationship with Israel. Commentators have long debated the place of Hosea’s marriage - some saying that Hosea’s relationship issues were a dream; others saying that he was given leniency around this law due to being a prophet - but fewer have dealt with the implications of the analogy. If adultery and idolatry are truly parallel, does this not mean that Israel is forbidden to God?
Clearly, the adultery/idolatry parallel only takes us so far in understanding God’s relationship with humanity. There is apparently no end to how far humans can go before teshuvah (repentance) is no longer acceptable. But it does call into question the reasoning for the Torah’s stance on adultery: it seems to opine that the marriage is no longer salvageable in the aftermath. If that’s the case, how is it that Israel’s relationship with the Divine is salvageable?
Chapter 2 of Hosea describes the rebuking of Israel and her reunification with God. ‘And it will be, on that day - declares the Eternal - you will call me Ishi [my man], and you will no longer call me Ba’ali [my master]; for I will remove the names of the Ba’alim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name.’ (verses 18-19). After we are reunified, there will be a change in the language Israel will use to refer to her husband. The text is clear that the reason for the change in language is a pun between ba’al (meaning ‘master’ or ‘husband’) and Ba’al, the false god. Israel will so reject idolatry that she won’t even use the word ba’al in its non-idolatrous sense.
However, perhaps there is another layer of meaning here. Ba’ali and ishi are not equivalent references for a husband. Ba’ali, my master, has connotations of servitude. Ishi, my man, has more equal connotations. Perhaps the result of the reconciliation is a fundamental shift in the workings of the relationship. Our previous relationship has crumbled and cannot be put back together in the same shape. Our relationship is only salvageable if we enter it on different grounds. Perhaps the underlying message of Hosea is that our reconciliation with the Divine cannot look identical to our previous relationship; this time, if we are to stay united, we must come to the Divine as a partner.